Ex-Synanon Members Break Down Cult’s Mixed Legacy and What America Can Learn From It

The Mary Sue/January 29, 2024

By Rachel Ulatowski

Sandra Rogers-Hare and Cassidy Arkin are the mother-daughter duo behind Paramount+’s new docuseries, Born in Synanon. Rather than sensationalize the story of the cult known as Synanon, the series challenges viewers to reflect on what really went wrong in hopes that future communities and countercultures can avoid the same mistakes.

Rogers-Hare was drawn to Synanon as a young activist intrigued by the community and The Game, which seemingly put everyone on equal footing regardless of class or race and went against societal norms. She met her husband through The Game—the group’s signature, harsh form of group therapy—and they eventually decided to devote their lives to Synanon, giving up the majority of their belongings and moving onto Synanon’s property. Their daughter, Arkin, was born and raised in Synanon until age 6.

It’s hard to judge Rogers-Hare and her husband for joining Synanon because, at one point, it seemed to have found the key to creating a utopia. It was a fully racially integrated community, which was unusual in the ’60s and ’70s. It offered drug rehab at a time when resources for people with an addiction were rare. There was no violence, everyone shared everything, and there was at least an illusion of a truly equal society. However, by the time Arkin was 6, it had devolved into a cult. Synanon’s founder, Chuck Dederich, turned to alcoholism, bringing violence and forced partner swaps, abortions, and vasectomies to a once peaceful community.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Arkin and Rogers-Hare to dig deeper into their perspective on Synanon.

What really happened to Synanon?

It’s impossible to discuss what happened to Synanon without discussing Dederich. Born in Synanon expresses a sentiment that Synanon was a utopia until one person, Dederich, destroyed everything. Both Arkin and Rogers-Hare agree that Dederich was one of the critical components of Synanon’s fall. Rogers-Hare revealed that even members of Synanon were uncertain about whether they would survive past their founder.

She explained, “We studied the Mennonites and a number of utopian groups, and what we understood was that very few survived past the founder. Very few survive. We expected to survive past the founder, but I moved in when I was in my 20s, so I had no concept that he would die … I certainly didn’t expect him to go to become an alcoholic again and to systematically destroy it. None of us had that on our radar.”

Despite hoping to survive and be the exception, Rogers-Hare admitted, “We knew that things could change.” Arkin also emphasized Dederich’s role in Synanon’s downfall. Although Synanon is now often labeled one of the most dangerous cults in America, Arkin doesn’t see it that way. The danger wasn’t necessarily in the cult or group of people—the danger was in Dederich.

She stated,

Well, I think that Syanon was not a dangerous cult. I think in many ways, the danger is one person. What happens when one person has power, and you’re so close to that person that you’re unaware of how the society or the community is devolving and becoming something other. Because the majority of the people who moved into Synanon and were a part of Synanon were literally taking their lives, changing their lives, knowing that they themselves were creating and investing in this community to do good for others. So, we were all, in many ways, kind of like walking down this blind road, not understanding how bad things were going to be… And that really is your takeaway with Born in Synanon, is one person went AWOL and everything was lost.

Was Synanon ever a utopia?

At the same time, when examining Synanon deeply, one will find societal flaws. These flaws may not have ended Synanon, but they show that the community wasn’t always what it seemed. For example, former Synanon members like Arkin and Carina Ray have expressed that they never experienced significant racism or segregation in Synanon, but Akrin and Rogers-Hare were careful to emphasize that though there may not have been racism, there certainly was classism.

Arkin explained, “We were very diverse, and it wasn’t a thought of, oh, my God, we have black and white people together, and we’re all hanging out. We have character disorders and prison inmates, and we have philanthropists. And that was never the thing because we were very much about being integrated and a community that really cherished each other for who they were.”

But Synanon was never quite an equal society despite, as Rogers-Hare described, its members “pontificating” about not having discrimination. Rogers-Hare pointed to Isabel Wilkerson’s thesis in Caste: “Discrimination rests in a power relationship rather than in ethnicity.” Just because Synanon “purportedly did not have racial discrimination” didn’t mean there wasn’t discrimination.

Arkin’s mother explained:

“We discovered as we were going through the interviews and putting this together, oh, my gosh. There was sort of some status cast, some status discrimination based on where you were. Like, if you gave $50,000 to Synanon. I didn’t catch on at the time, but you were treated better than if you just came in indigent … some people were treated differently, and it seemed to be based on their position in the power structure… based partly on competence and then partly on how much could you offer.”

Similarly, The Game has a mixed legacy in Synanon. Some declare it a form of attack therapy or brainwashing tactic, though, at the time, it seemed to be the key to nonviolent communication. Arkin described The Games as “one of the most fascinating aspects of Syanon” and believes “it was a vehicle for change.” As for the brainwashing, well, that was kind of the point. She said, “The brainwashing aspect is what we all wanted. If you think about coming in from a culture that really never accepted you and or you were just always fighting to have a place in America. So, when I say brainwashing, it was more about taking all of those qualities, those negative aspects of the American culture that didn’t work within my world, and wiping your slate clean.”

Rogers-Hare added, “To be specific, however, sometimes the game was brainwashing, so-called getting somebody’s mind right. ‘We want you to understand this or that.’ Sometimes, it was directive. ‘We want you to show up to work on time. We want you to do this or that.'”

However, there was a therapeutic aspect to it. Rogers-Hare played the game for “14 years straight,” morphing into less of a game and more of a conversation between people with “shared knowledge” and “shared understanding.” Still, this is just one example of the many dimensions of The Game. Of course, the fact that children played The Game drew what Rogers-Hare called “valid” criticism. Even the most defining aspects of Synanon, like The Game, were as convoluted as “American politics.”

What can America learn from Synanon?

Sometimes, it feels like the most significant takeaway in Born in Synanon is that we can’t have a utopia because even the communities that start with the best intentions can’t survive their leaders and the power corruption. However, despite having lived through Synanon, both Arkin and Rogers-Hare believe a utopia, like the one Synanon was supposed to be, could hypothetically work. Arkin emphasized the importance of learning from Synanon’s fall to understand what we can do better. She stated:

“I think America can be a great utopia. But it all starts with authenticity and truth and honesty, even in what you’re doing. Your ability to be able to see beyond just the cult and to ask the questions about what was it? Why did it fail? Like understanding the wound and how that started so that you can understand how you can create this great utopia. We can do something and create this utopia, even in America, if we just understand our history, our roots, our power, and how we can do something within a community and call people out on it.”

Rogers-Hare admits that the chances of a true utopia surviving are “very low.” At the same time, though, she thinks a utopia “absolutely” could still happen. She explained, “Look what’s going on in America with the two Americas. Can we save our democracy? I think we can. Is it likely that we’re going to have real damage that carries over some generations? Yeah, but I think we could. And I think knowing that you’re trying, that the number of people are trying to is motivating and exciting.”

Arkin adds that the key to progress is digging into our histories. It’s “understanding the scars, the wounds, where our parents are from, the rivers that cross through our towns” and learning from them. Born in Synanon isn’t just supposed to be another warning about cults but is meant to stir conversation on building a better society without falling into the same pitfalls that Synanon did.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos